Gnome kidnappers strip French gardens
By William Langley in Strasbourg

A WAVE of garden gnome kidnappings has
forced police in France to issue a general
security alert to anxious suburban

Hundreds of gnomes have been snatched in a
series of raids that have been carefully
planned and executed by at least two
shadowy groups. An exhibition of more than
2,000 gnomes at the Bagatelle gardens in
Paris was broken into last month and several
dozen stolen.

The next day an organisation calling itself
The Garden Gnome Liberation Front claimed
responsibility. "This odious exhibition must
be closed immediately. Or we will strike
again." Since then, incidents of
gnome-napping have increased to the point
where a senior police officer declared that
"no gnome can now be considered safe".

Last week in Lingolsheim, a well-heeled
suburb of Strasbourg, 43 gnomes were found
dumped in the grounds of the public library.
In Rouen, 68 were recovered from the
basement of a house after a week-long police
surveillance operation.

Many gnome-owners have resorted to taking
their sculptures indoors at night.
Householders in Gignac, near Montpellier,
enraged by the loss of their gnomes, have
formed a vigilante patrol using a truck with
an elevated platform and a powerful
searchlight to peer over garden walls.

A variety of fates await the stolen gnomes.
Some have been resettled in remote forest
dells, while in one macabre incident in
Alsace, 11 gnomes were found hanged by
their necks from a bridge over a river, with a
suicide note that said: "By the time you read
these few words, we will no longer be part of
your selfish world, which it has been our
unhappy task to decorate."

Prof Patrick Boumard, an anthropologist at
the University of Rennes, who has been
tracking the phenomenon, believes it stems
from "an expanding anti-bourgeois bias in
our society". France has an estimated 12
million gnomes - most of them adorning the
neat lawns, fish-ponds and flowery terraces
of the suburban middle classes.

Prof Boumard said: "The people behind this,
by targeting gnomes, are attacking the wider
values that gnome-owners hold dear.
Gnomes began to appear in Europe at the
start of the 15th century. Their arrival
coincided with the emergence of the
bourgeoisie. They may appear kitsch to us
now, but they have a historic and cultural
provenance. Stealing gnomes is part
mockery, part insurrection."

Kitsch or not, French gnomes tend to be a
notch higher up the social order than their
British counterparts. Many are
hand-sculpted, and lovingly painted by their
owners. Some have been in the same family
for generations. Prof Boumard said: "I have
known people who talk to their gnomes
every day, who even put them to bed at
night. They are treated almost as members of
the family."

The authorities have been accused of
refusing to take the problem seriously, and
in the country's gnome-studded suburbs
there have been warnings of "direct action"
unless something is done. "If these were
works of art being stolen from the homes of
the wealthy, the people doing it would be in
jail by now," said Marc Lepalle, a retired
Strasbourg fishmonger and owner of one of
the gnomes recovered at Lingolsheim. "All
we get is condescension. We are told:
'They're only gnomes.' "

A spokesman for Strasbourg police said: "It
is a national problem and our force is
working with others in the country. There is
clearly some degree of organisation behind
these incidents."

Next month, Prof Boumard will host a
three-day conference in Rennes to examine
what he describes as the
"socio-cultural-economic" implications of
gnome-napping. "We need to find answers
before it is too late," he said.

The Garden Gnome Liberation Front is the
more militant of two groups believed to be
in the vanguard of the rights-for-gnomes
movement. Its masked commandos are
credited with dozens of attacks. It is thought
to have up to 100 members and has a loosely
anarchist, anti-capitalist agenda.

Less menacing, but probably larger, is the
Garden Gnome Emancipation Movement,
which runs a web site devoted to the
promotion of gnomes' interests. It says:
"Garden gnomes are often seen as pointless
beings without personality - idle and ugly.
The purpose of our movement is to
rehabilitate them."

The group officially disassociates itself from
the activities of its rival but that has not
stopped it being bombarded with threats and
insults from angry gnome owners.

3 May 2000: 'Liberated' gnomes recovered
6 November 1998: Roaming gnomes locked
28 June 1997: Gnomes found in wood
24 May 1997: Gnome population kidnapped

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